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Net Views

Despite its growing presence in society, the Internet is hard to grasp - if it can be grasped at all. It is a volatile utensil made of software that seems to be in constant transience. How to visualize such a thing as the Internet? How to depict its structuring principles, its fragile composition, its social fabric graphically?

Questions that used to arise while we prepared talks about the Internet. Luckily, the Internet itself has to offer quite a supply of pictures, symbols, maps and sketches. The following little gallery lists some of the slides that we used as illustrations of the Net. However, none of them really conveys a comprehensive image of how the Internet works...

0.What about the bridge as a metaphor of being connected to the Net? Trond Buland, a Norwegian researcher with IFIM, Trondheim, suggested building upon William Gibson's story about the Oakland Bay Bridge. In his novel "Virtual Light", the bridge has ceased to be a means of transport and transmission. Instead, it has become a place to stay; in other words, a home. The Internet serves both functions: It is a tool for building connections and at the same time a place to be at. As the Ponte Vecchio in Florence above illustrates, this is no new concept.

1. An early, rather tear-jerking sketch of the concept of networking: various things and activities scattered over the globe bound together by the Net.

2. A global map, the colours of which represent connectivity and the type of access to the Internet around 1991. The Internet's territory pretty much reflected the predominant political and economical divisions of the real world.

3. Cyberspace means the death of geographic measures. Space and time are decoupled, metric distances and territorial boundaries are transcended in the digital realm.

4. A visualization of the former architecture of the American NSFNET. A few, still easily identifiable backbones provide horizontal connectivity among independent regional networks. Today the structure of backbones alone has become so complex that such a depiction would be impossible.

5. Another somewhat touching attempt to depict the composition of the Internet. Host, local networks and routers to connect those networks are the basic elements that form the big cloud 'Internet'.

6. A view of some major American data traffic routes.

7. Data packets traverse cyberspace by jumping from router to router. Traceroute is a UNIX command that makes the concrete path taken by data packets visible. We did traceroutes from Deutsche Forschungsnetz, Berlin, to Die Tageszeitung, a newspaper also based in Berlin, to show that the shortest paths between two networks on the Internet may not be short in the geographical sense. Our data packets traveled through Berlin via Geneva, Paris and Munich.

8. What looks like a rhizome turns out to be a graphical depiction of traceroutes performed from (the location of)one single network node. It represents all paths and destinations 'known' to the node in question. The different colors mark the traffic density.

9. John December's conceptual map looks at Cyberspace from the services' point of view. All available applications are shown as interacting spaces. It's a snapshot done in 1994. Finger, for example, a UNIX command that has been disabled by most networks in the meantime still took up a space almost as large as that of Telnet or WAIS. More recent services such as Internet telephony did not yet exist.

10. The early days of the Internet were permeated by an atmosphere of freedom and self-determination. Due to its open and decentral architecture, the Net resists traditional forms of political control and national jurisdiction. However, Cyberspace has become a contested territory and the idea of a World Wide Anarchy one of the prominent targets.

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Copyright 1994-1998 Projektgruppe "Kulturraum Internet". c/o Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB)
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